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Column: Health, safety mustn’t suffocate football

November 8, 2013

In 139 years of Scottish Cup finals, Dundee United vs. Motherwell in 1991 was unquestionably one of the most thrilling. Not simply because of the seven goals or Darren Jackson’s last-minute equalizer that forced extra time, but because Motherwell goalkeeper Ally Maxwell played through the pain barrier with two cracked ribs and a perforated spleen.

After colliding with Dundee’s man-mountain of a defender John Clark early in the second half, Maxwell lay in agony on the Hampden Park turf, sucking in great mouthfuls of air like a hooked fish. Today, in a telephone interview from Phoenix, Arizona, where he coaches, Maxwell still recalls “hearing funny noises” coming from inside his broken body when he moved. He was also seeing double and feeling so dizzy that he told an interviewer after the game that he couldn’t remember anything that happened after the collision: “It was all a blur.”

Back then, teams were allowed just two substitutions. Because Motherwell didn’t want to waste one of those on a goalkeeper, it didn’t even have a back-up for Maxwell on its bench that day. So gritting his teeth, he soldiered on. In extra time, Maxwell made two saves that won the cup for Motherwell, preserving its by-then 4-3 lead, including an acrobatic leap to tip Dundee captain Maurice Malpas’ half-volley over the bar. Each time, Maxwell gingerly clambered back to his feet. He clutched his side collecting his winner’s medal and then spent 10 days in a hospital recovering.

Football’s industry of insta-critics and health and safety crusaders would have a field day if something similar was repeated today. Airwaves would buzz with angry accusations that Motherwell played Russian roulette with Maxwell’s life — just as they did last Sunday after Tottenham allowed its goalie, Hugo Lloris, to play on after he was briefly knocked unconscious in a collision with Romelu Lukaku.

With Lloris, critics were right. Keeping the France international on the pitch was not only foolhardy but unnecessary, given that back-up Brad Friedel was ready. Lloris subsequently made important stops, throwing himself into a thicket of players and rushing from his goal to block Everton’s Gerard Deulofeu. Brave stuff. But had Lloris taken another whack on the head, repeated blows could have made any brain damage far worse.

Tottenham said a post-match scan on Lloris was clear. Manager Andre Villas-Boas defended his medical staff against what he called “lots of incompetent people, with absolutely no experience on the pitch,” who criticized the decision not to substitute Lloris. Still, that Villas-Boas then left Lloris out of a Europa League game on Thursday, instead using Friedel for just the fourth time this season, certainly reinforced the idea that Tottenham should also have rested Lloris immediately after his head smashed into Lukaku’s knee.

The quick conclusion to draw from the Lloris incident is that football needs clearer head-injury rules. But there also must be balance. In wanting to make football safer, the long tradition of players battling through injury and pain for the good of the team shouldn’t simply be dismissed as antiquated. Bravery, by definition, isn’t logical or even wise. It overrides our instincts, the voice that says, “this is nuts.” As misguided as Lloris seemed to some by insisting that he play on, that disregard for personal safety will always seem courageous to others.

Epic injuries are part of football lore. Franz Beckenbauer playing extra time of the 1970 World Cup semifinal with his right arm strapped to his body after Italy’s Pierluigi Cera hacked him down, dislocating his shoulder. Gerry Byrne — described as Liverpool’s hardest-ever player by teammate Ian Callaghan — enduring the 1965 FA Cup final with a broken collarbone. Terry Butcher and Paul Ince bleeding over their England shirts from head wounds. Maxwell refusing to abandon Motherwell’s goal despite what he still remembers as “serious pain through my abdomen.”

Shorn of physicality, football would lose much of its soul, purpose, interest and value as a school of hard knocks. Already, players tumbling over at the merest whiff of physical contact and referees too quick to whistle at raised studs are chipping away at the art of hard tackling. Physiotherapists rush on with cold spray, interrupting play, for players near death one moment, miraculously better the next. Between Lloris and cheats who dive and otherwise feign physical contact to hoodwink officials, there’s simply no contest about who sets the better example.

“I do applaud his bravery, 100 percent,” Maxwell said in the phone interview. “I’m pretty sure the fans don’t want to see guys, you know, who get a hair follicle pulled out of their leg and they come off, because they think, “Oh, I’ve got a bit of knock, coach.”

Kids, of course, must be protected. Maxwell coaches youngsters from 6 to 18 and notes that concussion rules in the United States leave him absolutely no wiggle-room. “When it involves a child we don’t have an opinion, we have to take the kids off,” he said.

But “when we’re talking about a grown man, half the time I look at the TV and cringe.” Like many of us, he finds himself muttering at players who fall over like feathers. He’s concerned that the Lloris incident could lead to toughened medical rules and “then you’re going to lose that great British bulldog spirit that we all love, that never-say-die attitude.”

“The last thing England needs or Scotland needs is to become a nation of ’Oh, doctor says I’ve got to take two aspirin and come off,” he said. “We’ve got to be careful that it doesn’t go down that road.”

So safety, absolutely, but football overly wrapped in cotton wool would no longer be football.


John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester@ap.org or follow him at http://twitter.com/johnleicester

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